"These courses, these catalogs are the perfect embodiments of attitudes and approaches which flashed like moonlight on the sea and were lost again, replaced by those mundane, conventional, but less alive patterns to which we quickly returned in the 1970’s. Once again we saw Camelot, crazy and beautiful; once again we lost it.”—Douglas M. Knight, President of Duke University, 1963-69, in his book, Street of Dreams: the Nature and Legacy of the 1960’s.
Anyone could teach a class. From Marxism—of every ilk—to Non-violence to Encounter Groups to Crafts to Art to Computers to . . . . It published a handsome, quirky newsletter that printed anything anybody was interested in. It sponsored be-ins, street concerts, a restaurant, a store, a print shop, and more. It was heavily into the Anti-War Movement at Stanford. Right-wing bombers attacked it, the FBI kept track of it, and The Palo Alto Times hated it. At its best, it was a place—a forum—to thrash out the divergent political and cultural aspirations of those years. At worst, it was foolish, naïve and self-indulgent. It may even have corrupted the youth. It was born of New Left politics, grew to embrace the entire counterculture, and died from a heavy dose of doctrinaire Marxism.
The media did—and still does—a great job of turning the entire '60's into a mix of supermarket porn, cloying nostalgia, and strident anti-Americanism. As for those of us who were there, our memories are too often blurred, selective and, just possibly, self-justifying. Maybe a better way to get hold of what really happened is to let our own younger voices speak for themselves. And that's what this site is up to.
From 1966 to 1970, the MFU published, along with its frequent Newsletters, a quarterly—and thoroughly enjoyable—Course Catalog. Those catalogs and newsletters have now been fully scanned and indexed. But to get all of that onto a website in an inviting, organized, searchable fashion is beyond me. So, as an introduction—and a teaser—I’ve taken a good sampling, put it here, and offered some suggestions for viewing.
The best way to begin is to browse through a Catalog and one or two Newsletters, especially those from the MFU's heyday. That way you can get the flavor of it all. May I suggest:
Before going further, some context is in order. Here’s a rough and partial chronology of what was happening during the MFU’s most active years…
1968 — The Tet Offensive Begins…The Beatles Visit The Maharishi…The Mai Lai Massacre…Johnson Decides Not to Run…Martin Luther King Assassinated…Riots Across the Country…Panther/Police Shootout in Oakland…Columbia Sit-In…Hair Opens on Broadway…Stanford Sit-In at the Old Union…Paris Peace Talks Begin… David Harris Goes to Jail… Robert Kennedy Assassinated…Benjamin Spock Convicted…500,000+ Troops in Vietnam…Soviets Invade Czechoslovakia…Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Police Attack Demonstrators…J. Edgar Hover Denounces the “depraved nature and moral looseness” of the New Left… Feminists Protest Miss America Contest…First Whole Earth Catalog…Nixon Wins Presidency…SRI Researcher First Demonstrates Combination of Keyboard, Mouse and Windows…Timothy Leary Busted for Two Roaches…Student Strike at SF State.
1969 — Santa Barbara Oil Spill…UC Students Strike for Ethnic Studies; BSU Demands at Stanford…Peace Demonstrations Across the Country…Bombing of Cambodia…Anti-War Demonstrations Grow and Become More Strident…April 3rd Movement at Stanford; Applied Electronics Lab Occupied… Massive B-52 Attack on Hanoi…Over 540,000 Troops in Vietnam; 33,000 Killed in Action to Date …People’s Park…SRI Demonstrations…SDS Splits…Easy Rider Premiers…US Astronauts Land on the Moon…Police Raid the Stonewall Bar…The Charlie Manson Murders…Woodstock… Bill Gates and Paul Allen Get Their Start… Chicago Eight Trial Begins…Weathermen—Days of Rage… Jack Kerouac Dies…First “internet” Transmission…250,000 Attend Mobilization for Peace in Washington; 1,000,000 across the Country…American Indians Seize Alcatraz…Rolling Stones’ Altamont Concert….
The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley began October 1, 1964…Teach-In’s all over…In 1965 The Free University of Berkeley and The Experimental College at SF State get started…In January 1966 classes begin at The Experiment at Stanford and the Free University of Palo Alto; a year and a half later they merge to become The Midpeninsula Free University. Free Universities crop up on at or near campuses across the country. [Draves, The Free University, pp. 75-89]
An article in a later Free You Newsletter tells the story of the MFU’s beginnings in a down-to-earth way.
The first Catalog appears with a Preamble echoing the critique of education in SDS’s Port Huron Statement; course offerings are political, but with a glimmer of what’s to come. Organizers identified.
Scope, ideals, structure and functions are discussed and debated; the MFU’s identity begins to emerge. See, for example:
The single most important and revealing document was the Preamble that first appeared in the Winter Quarter 1968 Catalog and remained unchanged to the bitter end. Much of the MFU’s history—and significance—lies in its attempt to realize those aspirations.
From the beginning, the emphasis was on openness:
As it grew and matured, its structure was formalized, but the participatory democracy model remained paramount. The Fall 1968 Catalog describes, concisely, the MFU’s governing structure, its political rationale and commitments, both local and national, and the variety of its activities: The Free You Newsletter, the store and headquarters, the print shop, the regular celebrations or “be-in’s” held at local parks.
The Special Projects section of that Catalog goes on to flesh out many of those activities and their relation to what was happening in the community at large.
By Fall 1967, a year after it had begun, enrollment was 650; a year later it had risen to over 1200, where it remained until 1970 when the MFU, as we knew it, changed in character—more about that later.
Except at the very beginning and the very end, when it was $15, and a one-time increase to $13, the registration fee was $10 per quarter. There was, however, a longstanding controversy over whether instructors could charge additional fees for specific classes—more about that later.
The number of courses each quarter during 1968 and 1969, ranged from about 150 to 300, with a median of 200. Any breakdown of courses by content is necessarily rough and arbitrary, but, surprisingly, the percentages remained fairly constant throughout: Encounter/Sensitivity —26%; Arts—15%; Crafts—12%; Philosophy and Religion—13%: Politics and Economics—12%; Leisure—10%; Whole Earth Studies—8%; Education—4%.
A lot gets said about “weird” Free U courses. The curriculum certainly went well beyond the mould of Adult Ed and Stanford’s tedious, often narrow, and decidedly studious Announcement of Courses. Given the MFU's criticism of the existing educational system, it is hardly surprising that instructors would teach what Stanford did not. Given its belief that personal and interpersonal transformation were essential to political transformation, it is not surprising that there would be a significant number of encounter and personal growth courses. Nor, given the tedious gravity of existing education, is it surprising the MFU would make room for leisure and just plain fun.
Or, to take a specific example, the Poetry Encounter Workshop:
That’s not to say that the catalogs didn’t contain classes that were foolish, redundant, ill-conceived or ill-taught. That’s the price of committing to a wide-open curriculum. But even on that score, beware the hasty judgment. Something that looks all wrong may have real, if unusual, value. Consider the Tantric ritual enacted in this class. Foolish? Immoral? I’m not so sure.
What strikes one most when looking through the catalogs is not the strangeness of the courses but their variety. This is especially apparent in early catalogs where classes were organized by day-of-the-week, rather than by subject matter. On a single page one finds a course in Humanism and Society juxtaposed with Morning Rain is Music, The Fifth International, Psyche and Symbol in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Painting as a Journey into One’s Self. And so on.
Nor did the Free University lack for prominent teachers: Paul Goodman was the principal speaker at an early organizational meeting. Herbert Marcuse taught a seminar. Joan Baez lectured on non-violence. Norman O. Brown, Stewart Brand, Richard Alpert [later, Ram Dass], Alexander Lowen, Robert Hass, and David Harris all taught classes at one time or another.
Not a homogenous or easily defined group. What began as a New Left inspired reaction to the traditional university quickly grew to welcome every strain of the ‘60’s counterculture: artists; crafts-people; writers and poets; lefties, old as well as new; proto-environmentalists; pacifists; draft resisters; people committed to or intrigued by Eastern religion, mysticism, drugs, rock music, and sexual freedom; dissatisfied liberals; disaffected street people. Some with organizations of their own. Really, there wasn’t one community; there were many. You get a sense of the surprising variety in reading the Community and Special Projects section of each catalog and the Directory of Organizations listed in many.
Participation and involvement varied. Some were content with a quarterly class or two that piqued their interest and were glad the MFU was out there. Some were involved in other activities and organizations but took or taught classes, occasionally attended meetings, and, for the most part, supported MFU policies and programs. And then there were those for whom the MFU was a primary commitment—they attended meetings, gave classes, volunteered, debated issues, formulated policy. It’s possible to get an idea of the relative size of these groups by looking at overall registration (1000-1200), the Directory of People found in most catalogs (about 175), and the average attendance at General Meetings (the 40 or so mentioned in Newsletter articles and interviews, and in its regular list of “People without whom we’d never…”). All would have subscribed—in one way or another—to the aspirations of the Preamble, though a goodly number must have had reservations about the coming “millennium” and taken “the natural state of man is ecstatic wonder” as an endearing exhortation.
There was, however, something special about the MFU. As an educational institution it held itself open to every strain of ‘60’s counterculture. Anyone could teach anything. Individuals and groups who would otherwise have had little or nothing to do with each other—whether from indifference or mutual antipathy—were welcome to teach and proselytize. And many of them saw the advantages of cooperation and collaboration or, at least, of presenting a united front. The leaders of the MFU—more about them later—true to what were, after all, the unacknowledged anarchist principles of its Preamble, saw the beginnings of something more—the mutual aid and sympathy which could, given a chance, focus and unite the local counterculture. A tantalizing promise, which, as we shall see, started, sputtered awhile, and eventually died.
On that score, it is interesting to contrast the MFU with the Free University of Berkeley (FUB), catering to larger, more divergent and, in some ways, more entrenched communities.
All organizations—and perhaps the MFU more than most—are shaped by the events they confront and the character of those who lead them.
A nice place to start is the group caricature of prominent MFU personalities.
Unfortunately, there isn’t space to describe all of them, but several deserve attention:
Robb Crist is the most enigmatic. Older, a perpetual graduate student, an intellectual gadfly, full of ideas, often a provocateur. He was around at the beginning and, as the MFU grew, seemed to pop up everywhere. Even later, after he had stepped back a bit, his positions on this or that are cited in meetings and discussions. Yet it’s not easy to say where he wanted to take the MFU, though one had the feeling that he knew and was enthusiastic about getting there. Some sense of Robb’s program can perhaps be gleaned from a plan he proposed in an early Newsletter. Utter transformation? Some kind of neo-Daoist politics? Hard to be sure, and that’s probably how he wanted it.
Vic Lovell, one of the original organizers, was ubiquitous. A psychologist, political activist and charter member of Stanford’s small, talented late ‘50’s/early ‘60’s bohemia—Perry Lane, Ken Kesey, the VA’s LSD project, an so on.
Here’s an appreciation of his term as Coordinator, with an apt simile—“Vic’s mind with an idea is like a dog with a bone.”
Here’s Vic with an interesting bone.
And here’s the Prologue to his series of takes on Stanford’s early ‘60’s bohemia.
Bob Cullenbine. Cully was the face of the MFU during its most active times. A man of conviction. Whether it be conflict within the MFU or confrontation without, he was there, up front, saying—in his own down-to-earth way—what had to be said and doing what had to be done.
Here’s an “appreciative reminiscence” of his time as MFU Coordinator, along with Nina Wolf’s “Icarus-Prometho-Pangloss-Cullenbine” caricature.
Cully’s reply to a letter from an old girlfriend who could not understand where he had “gone wrong,” lays it out well and tenderly.
Fred Nelson. By now it should be evident that The Free You was no ordinary in-house newsletter. Whatever it was—and more about that later—was, in good measure, Fred’s doing. He was a meticulous editor, and—as evident in his coverage of the events that shaped the MFU—a scrupulous reporter. Fred was also something of a humorist: his Captain Freeyou comic strip says a lot about Fred—and the MFU as well.
This MFU’s iconic protester is Fred’s creation; actually, it is Fred.
Five events—if you can call them that; they were more like unfolding sagas—stand out: (1) the quest for a Community Center; (2) Be-Ins and Liberation Festivals; (3) the Anti-War Movement at Stanford; (4) the Bombings; and (5) the ascendancy, if not domination, of the Marathon and the Psychodrama. Though they look to be separate and discrete, they're not. Not only did they occur almost simultaneously, but the attitudes and actions—as well as the re-actions—they engendered are inextricably intertwined.
After trying several temporary locations, the MFU found a storefront in Menlo Park and, in October 1967, opened a store for its artists and crafts people; the office was in the back room.
That “nest,” as the storefront came to be known, was friendly but limited. A full-scale community center was proposed.
A location was found in downtown Palo Alto. Negotiations with the landlord began, terms were agreed to, detailed plans were drawn up, and the membership voted its approval.
Then, suddenly, the owner of the building—a pillar of what is best described as Palo Alto’s petite bourgeoisie—reneged, offering a series of differing and dubious excuses. Bob Cullenbine tells the story well.
That led to a peaceful demonstration and sit-in involving not just the MFU but just about every other activist organization on the Midpeninsula. It began on Lytton Plaza in downtown Palo Alto, spread to the hoped for community center, and wound up at and in the mini-skyscraper where the landlord had his offices. Here is Fred Nelson’s description of the events, followed by that of the Palo Alto Times (as reprinted in The Free You’s regular “As Others See Us” feature).
Was the protest right or wrong? Productive or counterproductive? Could the MFU eventually have gotten what it wanted by forsaking protest? Or would doing so only have postponed the inevitable clash with the local establishment? Those questions crystallized a fundamental—and long standing—debate within the MFU:
Immediately following the protest the MFU began a series of Liberation Festivals in Lytton Plaza, featuring local bands and an open microphone. The festivals were especially attractive to young people, who formed their own organization, the United Student Movement and, with MFU support, took over the festivals. It wasn’t long until the police stepped in and another confrontation occurred.
Meanwhile, the MFU continued its search for a community center. For more than a year, new locations were scouted and funding was sought. What finally emerged was a proposed cooperative partnership between the MFU and several sympathetic investors to takeover a failed restaurant in an aging downtown building. A host of issues—practical and philosophical—were debated. A delicate balance was struck and renovations began, only to be delayed twice for lack of funds. Finally, in April 1970, “The Full Circle—a Co-operative Coffeehouse-Restaurant” opened.
But it was too late. Before the year ended, The Full Circle withered and died, overtaken by the forces—within and without—which tore the MFU and the entire counterculture apart. We’ve already glimpsed some; more were to come.
On the heels of the Community Center crisis in August 1968, came another defining event, this one over the MFU’s tradition of holding registration Be-Ins.
Early on, the Free University of Palo Alto and the Experiment had picnics and other get-togethers. Then, in January 1967, the first Human Be In was held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The idea caught hold and on May 14th the Free University held a “Mother’s Day Be-In,” followed in July by a “Registration Be-In and Mary Poppins Umbrella Festival,” both with local bands and speakers. That Fall another Registration Be-In was held, this time several well known groups performed—The Steve Miller Blues Band, Blue Cheer, and the Congress of Wonders—and that Spring there was another, smaller Be-In. Most were held at Palo Alto’s El Camino Park, a park regularly used by civic organizations for large gatherings. But Palo Alto, welcoming to the Lions Club’s large and loud annual classic car show, had no use for Be-Ins. Only under pressure from the ACLU did it relent, but even that did not prevent petty police harassment.
By the Summer of 1968 the MFU was in full swing. A large Be-In was planned for late June. The city issued a permit, but residents of a nearby apartment house objected, went to court, and lost. At that point, the City informed the MFU that, after this, no more Be-Ins would be held in the park.
The Summer Be-In was a success. Eldridge Cleaver and Timothy Leary spoke; Charlie Musselwhite, the Sons of Chaplin and Notes from the Underground played.
Because of Palo Alto’s opposition, the MFU looked elsewhere for a site for its Fall Be-In, scheduled for September 21st. But nowhere could it obtain the necessary permits, so the MFU went to Federal Court where one of the most conservative judges in California declared the park ordinances of both Palo Alto and Menlo Park unconstitutional, and the Be-In went ahead as planned—at its traditional location. The full story—a sad commentary on the local establishment’s inability to accept the MFU as a legitimate force in the community—is carefully told by Vic Lovell.
But the damage had been done. As far as the city fathers were concerned, the MFU was now the enemy. The Palo Alto city attorney at once set to work on a new ordinance aimed at preventing future Be-Ins. The MFU’s attorney made one final, futile effort to convince the City that it was making a terrible mistake because it did not understand the MFU or appreciate the positive role it could play in the community.
Relegated to a dusty, treeless park in the Baylands, the MFU gave up on Be-In’s. The following year it tried and succeeded with a different format—the rock concert. Two concerts, one in August and another in October, were held in Stanford’s idyllic Frost Amphitheater, both with popular Bay Area bands and performers. For a poster and photographs see:
Saturday night concerts in Lytton Plaza, begun the previous year in response to the Community Center controversy, resumed in the Summer of 1969. Now they were run by local high school students and street people, organized, with the help of the MFU, as the “Free Peoples Free Music Company.”
Two profound events marked the 1960’s—Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
The original organizers of the MFU tried hard to integrate it into the primarily African-American community of East Palo Alto. It was the Free University’s first home and most classes were taught there. But the mix didn’t take, and the MFU moved to Palo Alto proper. The era of Black Power and the Black Panthers had come. The MFU continued its support—endorsing the Panthers’10 Point Program (but not without dissent), having Eldridge Cleaver speak at one of its largest Be-In’s, regularly publishing attacks on racism, and reporting on events in the East Palo Alto community. That support comes across—in typical Free You style—on the cover, in the artwork, and in a photographic prose poem about the Soul Brothers Motorcycle Club and one of its runs.
But the overwhelming political issue in the late 1960’s was Vietnam. By 1966 opposition to the war was widespread; especially on and around college campuses. At Stanford students and faculty began to speak out and to organize. Opposing them was the Board of Trustees, among them a future Secretary of Defense, who saw Stanford as a wellspring for producing and perpetuating the economic and political elites who, like themselves, were destined to run the country. They endorsed and encouraged—in the spirit of Herbert Hoover and his Foundation—collaboration with industry and with the military both on campus and at the subsidiary that had been created for that purpose—the Stanford Research Institute. And they saw to it that the administration of the University adhered to their line.
That was the political context in which the Free University was born. Its founders represented the full spectrum of anti-war sentiment: pacifist, liberal, old and new left. From the beginning, it publicized its opposition to the war, supported draft resistance, and participated in anti-war protest. One founding member was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee; others were arrested at protests; and a well-known activist, David Harris, who taught several Free University courses, was imprisoned for refusing induction. His trial prompted another founder, Roy Kepler, the owner of the bookstore that had long been a community institution, to publish his “Testament of a Radical Pacifist”
Outrage over Stanford’s involvement in war-related research began in the 1965-66 term, grew in 1966-67, and came to a head in 1968-69. Stanford SDS took lead in what eventually became the April 3rd Movement (A3M). The studies, proposals, demands, faculty meetings, student meetings, trustee meetings, reports, responses, speeches, sit-ins and protests leading up to the 9-day occupation of the Applied Electronics Laboratory on the campus beginning April 9th, the demonstration at Stanford Research Institute’s Page Mill Road laboratory on May 16th, and further demonstrations at its main facility in Menlo Park a few day later, together with the resulting police actions, injunctions, arrests, hearings and trials are well chronicled in the A3M archive cited above. Suffice it to say that Stanford finally did halt on-campus war-research and divested itself of the Stanford Research Institute [which morphed into SRI International].
MFU members participated in the protests and sit-ins, and much was written about it all in The Free You. Among the most engaging is an article by a member who, until the 9-day sit-in, had not been “very political nor very involved.”
But protest over the war was not confined to Stanford’s role. 1968 was an election year—Humphrey v. Nixon. The evening of the election, SDS, the Resistance and the MFU held “a wake for the death of the electoral process” —a candlelight march from the campus to downtown Palo Alto. Here’s what happened.
Protests continued, and in late 1969 huge demonstrations were held across the country, culminating in the Moratorium March on Washington D.C., attended by 500,000 people. Sympathetic demonstrations were held in Palo Alto and San Francisco. MFU members participated and the Newsletter covered them, but included an article expressing reservations, not about the message, but about the changing tone of protest.
That change in tone was evident the following year in the campaign to end ROTC at Stanford. The war had not ended, demonstrators were angry and frustrated, police and sheriff officers were menacing and antagonistic, and the University’s hostility to protest stiffened. Insults were hurled and rocks were thrown. A building was burned. Tension arose within the MFU and a General Meeting was called to discuss “philosophical questions of violence versus nonviolence in political demonstrations.” MFU meetings had always been open to anyone who wanted to attend. This time a reporter from The Palo Alto Times arrived, notebook in hand. What ensued was intense and revealing. It was taped and the transcript published.
In the end the MFU voted to support the effort to eliminate ROTC at Stanford. And eventually it was.
The local headquarters for George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign was an ideal meeting ground for the misanthropic right. John Birchers, gun freaks, hate-filled abused adolescents, Minute Men, eye-for-an-eye Bible thumpers, right wing bull-shitters all got to know each other. A few even knew some chemistry. Before long a bunch got together, christened themselves the Society of Man (gulp), and started plotting to clean up the Midpeninsula. They began with a break-in at the MFU store in Menlo Park, vandalizing the office and stealing files. Then, armed with slingshots, bricks and a hatchet, they broke windows at the store, Kepler’s two bookstores, and the offices shared by the Resistance and Concerned Citizens. The Palo Alto police—several of whom probably thought the Society of Man was just what was needed—did nothing. The Palo Alto Times, for reasons of its own, pretty well ignored the whole thing. The conspirators, as conspirators will, began enjoying the adrenalin rush of night-riding and started talking automatic weapons, canisters, C3, C4, CO2 cartridges, Molotov cocktails, incendiary devices, fuses, black powder, and dynamite. Within a month they were regularly cruising the Midpeninsula, taping bombs to windows, placing them in entranceways and in cars. Kepler’s, the MFU Store, and the Resistance were attacked. A firebomb was ignited on the porch of the Vic Lovell’s psychodrama commune. A Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Kennedy Action Corps headquarters. MFU members organized all-night vigils to keep watch at the store and found a not very reliable inside informant. Finally, in January 1969—three months after the bombings had begun—a Menlo Park Police Officer infiltrated the group and arrests followed, but not before the Society of Man had exploded a bomb on the front porch of a Palo Alto Councilmember who supported gun control. By then, there had been somewhere between 30 and 40 incidents, and The Palo Alto Times was finally paying attention.
The newsletter chronicled it all. Here is its best article, discussing not only what was known but what was suspected but left unknown when the defendants pled guilty before trial.
Finally, here’s a contribution solicited by Bob Cullenbine from Joss Cooney, who was arrested but later had his charges dropped, along with Ed McClanahan’s memories of his honest, but uneasy friendship with a bomber who went to prison.
While politics predominated, the early catalogs also offered courses devoted to philosophy, psychology, eastern mysticism, creative arts, and leisure activity. But it wasn’t long before missionaries from Esalen arrived, veterans of Gestalt and psychodrama, ready to thrash out their emotions in long, intense encounters. Human potential courses proliferated.
Then, in early 1968, a small, crippled, Southeast-Asian, named Husain Chung, arrived in the area, set up shop as the Human Institute, and began conducting intense psychodrama marathons.
The best way to grasp the method in the madness is to read—with empathy—an account of a Chung psychodrama.
In a Special Supplement to The Free You, Chung himself described what he was up to.
A more measured description of the phenomena appears in the Winter 1970 Catalog. Also, a woman’s experience when she happened into a tamer one.
Word of Chung’s uncanny mastery spread, and, in short order, he and his workshops quite simply overwhelmed the MFU, its leaders, and most of its membership. By late 1968—amidst of bombings, be-ins, hassles over the community center, and the accelerating anti-war movement on campus—MFU members were regularly attending Human Institute marathons and conducting their own.
Chung himself was apolitical, but the times were very political. His style—dramatic, confrontational, with no holds barred—-carried over to the streets.
While most MFU members saw the marathons as nurturing their community and strengthening their resolve, Roy Kepler did not. An ardent pacifist, he attacked not only what he saw as the danger of psychodramatic politics, but the changing mood of the entire left.
For their part, SDS radicals on campus and in the community wrote the entire encounter-marathon-psychodrama culture off as a narcissistic dead end. [More of that later.] Oddly enough, the Marxist cadre that eventually took over the MFU had been deeply involved in psychodrama and appropriated its methods and style to their own ends.
But first something has to be said of the mundane, day-to-day grind—the things that have to get done, sap energy, and offer, at best, small satisfaction.
Money is high on that list. From beginning to end, the MFU was run on a shoestring. It was always on the edge, and on several occasions had to be rescued by a rock concert or a benefactor. Have a look at an early and a later budget. Note the subsistence level of the few salaries paid. The last paragraph of the Fall 1969 budget voices the lot—and plea—of every MFU Treasurer.
Commitment, or the lack of it, was another abiding issue. Here’s an early exhortation. Many would follow.
Then too, the MFU attracted more than its share of wounded street people, crazies, and the like. And then there were the tangled relationships among the regulars—loves, friendships, quarrels, reconciliations, and so on. Finally, just everyday business.
All of this, defining events and mundane travail, was grist for the mill when the three people who headed the MFU in 1968 and 1969—Vic Lovell, Kim Woodard and Bob Cullenbine—got together with a tape recorder “to talk about the MFU, where its been, and where its going.” Rambling and inconclusive though it may be, their conversation stands as the most revealing—and honest—portrayal of the Midpeninsula Free University, what it aspired to, what it accomplished, the toll it took, and where it fell short.
What of the Newsletter itself—the source of much of what you’ve read so far?
Fred Nelson’s editorial manifesto, “What We’re About,” says it best. And comes with a wonderful photograph—green eye-shades and all—of Fred and his fellow editors, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and Jon Buckley.
The articles cited so far are mostly about the MFU and its exploits, but The Free You went further, much further. There were stories, poems, graphic art, photographs, essays, humor, reviews, travel pieces, re-prints (from The Palo Alto Times to The Realist), recipes, gardening pieces, viewpoints of every sort, even a little porn.
No room for it all, so here’s a potpourri. . . .
In 1973, a few years after it was all over, Ed McClanahan and Fred Nelson edited and published some of the best pieces of writing from the Free You. Looking back, this is what they had to say.
Sex. What to say. . . These were the 1960’s; this was the counterculture. The pill had arrived; AIDs hadn’t. Sex was to be experienced and explored. There were classes; there were relationships. Some worked; others didn’t. Sexual exploitation was frowned upon; sexual experience wasn’t. Did the MFU solve the sexual dilemma(s) of Western Civilization? No. Did it have a try? Yes. Did trying do more harm than good? Probably not. And, for what it’s worth, the MFU gave out some helpful information along the way.
Drugs. The MFU had no “drug policy,” but the attitude was fairly clear: Psychedelics could yield joyful experiences, which might, if the circumstances were right, be profound. They could also lead to terrible bummers, so take care. Marijuana was more fun and less dangerous than alcohol. Speed, heroin and the like were dangerous crutches. Fortunately, there wasn’t much cocaine around; had there been, it would have taken its toll.
Bob Cullenbine was especially concerned about the cavalier attitude toward street drugs, including psychedelics. When The Free You published a street report on available drugs, something common in the underground press at the time, he was outraged.
Typical was Rev. Mike Young’s informative article on marijuana and Betty’s Spaghetti.
Or how about Thom Gunn's fine LSD poem At the Center.
Computers. The MFU and several of its most active participants are responsible, to some degree, for the character and style of what is now Silicon Valley. There were of course other, quite different, influences at work: SRI, with its grants from the Department of the Army, The Homebrew Computer Club, Willis Harman’s International Foundation for Advanced Study, and the regulars who hung out at the Stanford Computer Center, to name a few. All this is well described in John Markoff’s book, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
What’s noteable about the MFU’s computer people is the diversity of their interests. Larry Tesler was a thoughtful critic who helped shape the MFU; held a variety of offices; wrote poetry, articles and reviews for The Free You; and taught classes with titles like People Heaps, How to End the IBM Monopoly, Computers Now, and Procrastination. Jim Warren served, early on, as General Secretary of the MFU and as Editor of The Free You, and taught classes on intentional communities and compassionate gentleness. John McCarthy was a benefactor and an active participant, teaching classes and hosting meetings. Bob Albrecht taught computer programming and Greek dancing. Marc Porat organized festivals, taught classes, and participated in just about everything the MFU ever did. Their later Silicon Valley careers are described in What the Dormouse Said.
Diverse as it was, several strands run through the entire ‘60’s counterculture. One was rejection of the stultifying conformity pressing in all round. America, at that point in its history, was seen as a vast technocracy with the university as a mass producer of men and women to place in its niches. This was the era of IBM, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, boring bankers, and What’s Good for GM is Good for America. Free wheeling, free market capitalism, multi-millionaires in Levi’s, and flashy Wall Street traders were a long way off. Another strand was awareness that America, for all its pretensions, had sadly and unjustly repudiated and abandoned its poor and its minorities. Finally, there was the rejection of America’s Cold War mentality, which saw world events as having no intrinsic meaning other than their relevance to the Great Game with Russia.
That was the common ground and, in the beginning, there was considerable agreement over what to do about it. But as the 60’s wore on and the counterculture became aware of itself as a potentially powerful force, latent tensions and conflicts emerged. Some indeed believed that the Age of Aquarius had arrived; others liked what was happening but realized that much needed to be done; still others were deeply troubled and found explanations and strategies in one or another political theory—anything from radical pacifism to militant Marxism.
All of which leads up to the question: Did the MFU have a position? Or was it just a hodgepodge of the entire counterculture?
The catalogs offer ample support for the hodgepodge view, and that’s what people on the outside looking in saw. But a careful reading of the documents reveals something different. In the beginning, a commitment to the emerging ideas of the New Left. Then an attempt to reconcile those ideas with its new-found dedication to the human potential movement. The result was that many in the MFU came to believe that out of the radical personal and interpersonal transformation experienced not only in encounter groups and psychodramas but also in Free U courses at large would come a new kind of politics. Open, more humane, more encompassing, and more creative. A politics that would, to paraphrase Bob Cullenbine, create a true community and a better society. Unlike the left, which saw its future in solidarity with the oppressed, the MFU wanted first to reach out and unify the counterculture; the rest would follow. Neither succeeded.
Tensions emerged, as I said, both within and without. Early on, one founding member claimed the Free University could never have a true politics.
The tensions that arose within the MFU over its response to being denied a community center and its reliance on psychodramatic politics have already been described. Similar tensions crop up, again and again, in The Free You.
Criticism from outsiders on the left came to a head in Fall 1969, with the publication of “What’s Wrong with the Free University” in Palo Alto’s radical bi-weekly broadsheet, The Peninsula Observer. That article was reprinted in The Free You, along with responses from two Free You editors, a reply to one of those responses from the editor of The Observer, and a subplot involving copyright.
In February 1970, the White Panthers—a local group of young radicals—conducted a sit-in at the MFU store and offices. Here’s a slightly facetious account, along with their demands and a description of their organization.
So, was the MFU revolutionary?
It did not have a systematic theory of capitalism, of class struggle, of history. It did not have a 5 or 10 or 12 point program. There was no party discipline, no formal cadre. It was not ready to take up arms. It did not believe that a dictatorship of the proletariat was a precondition to the day when one could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” Though I must say that the conclusion of the MFU’s Preamble bears some resemblance to Marx’s Utopia, but then all utopias do.
What was revolutionary about the MFU was its belief that a fundamental change in societal relationships—a new, better politics—could only be achieved by radical individual and interpersonal transformation, that the human potential movement provided tools for such a transformation, and that the exact nature of that politics had begun to emerge and would continue to do so as the transformation fructified.
If the MFU has any claim to a small corner of history, it is because it served as a laboratory for that fascinating, failed experiment.
Besides—in spite of all the hassles—it was fun . . . and we learned a few things.
On March 28, 1969, the San Francisco Field Office of the FBI provided the Director in Washington with the first of five classified reports on the MFU. On Page 46 of the 94 page report, a “source” recounts the Revolutionary Union’s [RU] and the Peninsula Red Guard’s [PRG] designs on the MFU.
It is impossible to determine the reliability of the source because his or her name has been redacted. The reference to the Winter 1969 Catalog and the mention of the Red Guard (which, according to the FBI, merged with the RU in January) indicates that the information was provided in late 1968 or early 1969.
Here’s how the FBI describes the RU and how the RU was later to describe itself, complete with a Chairman Mao comic strip:
In January 1970, John Dolly—a member or soon-to-be-member of the RU— was elected Coordinator. By May 1970, members of the RU were firmly in control. By Fall the Preamble of the MFU had been removed from the catalog and in its place was “…a Preface” signed “John Dolly, Revolutionary Union, Coordinator-Midpeninsula Free U.”
So, what happened?
First of all, it was nowhere near as dramatic as the SDS split in the Summer of 1969. The leadership in the MFU in 1968 and 1969 was—as we saw—tired and dispirited, looking for new generation of leaders and another path. Communal living was one possibility. Not isolated country communes, but shared living arrangements in an urban setting that would allow participants to focus their energies and collaborate with other communes.
At the same time, intensifying anti-war activity on the campus had bred what can only be described as “revolutionary fervor” among its younger participants. And with that fervor, the conviction that the only solution was to move further to the left.
From that new generation of campus radicals came the new leadership of the MFU. They were not outsiders. Several, including the new Coordinator, lived and worked in the psychodrama commune that Vic Lovell had established and were active contributors to The Free You.
Shortly after his election, Dolly explained: “The vision that I see for the Free U is to somehow collect the vision and energy that is coming out of the still evolving communes in this area and make that the Free U vision. More and more people are living in communes. The full potential of that force has not filtered into the Free U. Somehow we are going to have to bring it all home.”
But it wasn’t long before the politics of the Revolutionary Union took hold. The May 1970 issue of The Free You—the last published in a magazine format—made that clear. Henceforth, America was Amerika and the police were the pigs. It was all over for the old MFU.
Fred Nelson had resigned and a new editorial policy was in place.“Moving On” From The Free You: Vol. 4, No. 9, May 18 1970 [Link 99]
With its next issue, The Free You adopted a tabloid-style format and took on the tone of similar publications—anger at Capitalist injustice, exhortation to do what must be done, and confidence that the people, united, shall ultimately prevail.
Such was the temper of the times.
In December 1970, the Full Circle went broke and closed it doors.
The Free You ceased publication February 1971 when, after a split within the RU, local collectives allied themselves with the Venceremos organization, and The Free You became the bi-weekly known as Venceremos.
Membership in the MFU plunged from 900 in the Winter 1971, when the new leadership took over, to 70 that Summer. At which time the MFU was disbanded. Some activities, like Vic Lovell's Psychodrama Workshop, survived on their own.
A number of other Free Universities continued on into the ‘70’s. While reflecting much of the counterculture, they avoided direct political action.
The available FBI file on the MFU runs about 200 pages and consists primarily of five reports, classified as “Secret,” covering the period from November 15, 1968 to August 19, 1971. It contains numerous redactions, both names of sources and details that could identify them.
What first attracted the FBI was its interest in the Revolutionary Union, particularly two classes listed in the Fall 1968 Catalog and taught, according to the FBI, by a RU member—“Urban Guerrilla Warfare” and “Marxism-Leninism and the American Revolution.”
There is evidence that the FBI informant who attended the Guerrilla Warfare class was—at the same time—engaged in the bombings, already described, to which he later pled guilty. How much the FBI knew about him is unclear, but it is normal practice to investigate an informant to determine his or her reliability—a necessary prerequisite to a search or arrest warrant based on the information provided. Elsewhere in his report, the Special Agent vouched for his sources “based on reliable information in the past.”
The FBI’s interest in the MFU was consistent with its overall policy toward Free Universities. The U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Operations (1976)—the Church Committee—reported that “[W]hen an article appeared in a Detroit newspaper stating that a ‘Free University’ was being formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and that it was ‘anti-institutional,’ FBI headquarters instructed the Detroit Field Office to ‘ascertain through established sources the origin of this group and the identity of the individuals who are responsible for the formation of the group and whether any of these individuals have subversive backgrounds.’ A note on the instruction stated: Several ‘Free Universities’ have been formed in large cities recently by the Communist Party and other subversive groups. We are therefore conducting discreet investigations through established sources regarding all such ‘Free Universities’ that come to the Bureau's attention to determine whether they are in any way connected with subversive groups.”
The MFU was not unaware of the possibility of government surveillance. Interestingly, the two articles dealing with the issue appeared early in 1968, months before the FBI claims it began keeping an eye on the MFU.
Below is a Table of Selected Documents from the FBI’s file, dating and describing the information contained in those documents. Links to those of special interest are provided.
The “security index” mentioned in several entries was a secret nationwide list of persons the FBI considered potentially dangerous to national security who were to be detained without warrant during a crisis. It is described by M. Wesley Swearingen, an FBI agent from 1951 to 1977, in his book, FBI Secrets: An Agent's Expose (1994). The Church Committee found that Congress was never informed of the FBI’s detention plan, which failed to meet the statutory [and constitutional] requirement that there be "reasonable ground to believe" prospective detainees would engage in espionage or sabotage.
The file contains the names of almost everyone who occupied any position in the MFU from late 1968 to mid 1971. Markings following the names probably indicate some, at least minimal, effort by the FBI to secure additional information.
|11/4/1968||Special Agent in Charge (SAC), San Francisco, writes to Director in Washington, describing the MFU Fall 1968 Catalog and noting 2 courses—Urban Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism-Leninism and the American Revolution—at least one of which was attended by an FBI informant [Link to 103]|
|11/14/1968||Washington instructs SF to initiate investigation of MFU based on information that it is controlled by Revolutionary Union (RU) [Link to 104]|
|12/18/1968||SF to Wash, notes that informants have been obtained and describes extensive focus of FBI on radical activity on the Midpeninsula, especially concerning RU.|
|12/18/1968||Weird report from informant. [Link to 105]|
|1/8/1969||Wash to SF; directs investigation of MFU to be “penetrative, that members and officials be identified, and that association…with RU be determined.”|
|3/28/1969||Cover sheet of 1st extended report on MFU (94 pages) covering period from 11/15/68 to 3/18/69; naming other government organizations to whom the report is to be disseminated; informant states that RU does not control MFU; includes three page list of information sources—all names redacted. [Link to 106]|
|3/28/1969||Summary of 1st Report and general description of MFU. Report itself is broken down into following sections: Origin and Scope; Organization; Aims & Purposes: Location & Headquarters; Officers; Membership; Curriculum; Affiliation with RU; with an Appendix of Radical Organizations. Same format followed in subsequent Reports. Report contains names of almost everyone actively participating in the MFU at the time; markings on each name probably indicate some kind of follow up.|
|3/28/1969||In the Section on Affiliation with RU, source advises that members of RU are under orders to try bring MFU under control of RU, noting that presently it has no control but some influence. [Link to 107]|
|3/28/1969||FBI’s Description of Revolutionary Union (RU) and Peninsula Red Guard (PRG)|
|4/24/1969||Wash to SF. Acknowledges report that RU doesn’t control, but instructs SF to continue submitting reports because “MFU appears to be a New Left type organization since it is clearly directed against the ‘Establishment’.”|
|9/15/1969||Portion of 2nd report on MFU (Full Report: 29 pages) covering period from 3/29 to 8/29/69. Same format. Under “Other Activities,” describes the growth The Free You Newsletter—characterizing it as a “slick magazine”—and goes on to describe MFU involvement in various community activities.|
|9/15/1969||Portion of 2nd report quoting a local activist’s criticism of the MFU as espousing a “liberal anarchistic notion that people should do their own thing.”|
|4/21/1970||Cover sheet of 3rd report on MFU (Full Report: 15 pages) covering period from 9/1/69 to 4/15/70. Indicates that it will continue to follow MFU and be alert for RU influence. States that all current officers will be investigated to determine whether they should be included in FBI’s Security Index. [Link to 108]|
|12/22/1970||Cover sheet of 4th report on MFU (Full Report: 27 pages) covering period from 4/16/70 to 12/10/70. Redacted names of those affiliated with MFU who already are or are recommended to be “tabbed as Priority I for the Security Index;” indicating others who are being considered for inclusion; and, finally, designating still others who do not, as yet, warrant inclusion.|
|12/22/1970||Describes RU control, increase in registration fee to $15 and decline in membership—down to 536—for Fall 1970|
|8/26/1971||Portion of 5th and final report on MFU (Full Report: 11 pages). Quoting extensively from The PA Times on the demise of the MFU, including Bob Cullenbine’s description of how it happened, and the Current MFU coordinator’s comment that the MFU “is not serving the needs of working class and street people.” [Link to 109]|
Return to Index
Doyle, Michael, Radical Chapters: Roy Kepler on the Front Lines of Peace, Protest and the Paperback Revolution, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press (publication pending). [Excellent biography of the radical pacifist who founded a community institution and helped start the Free U. Several chapters on his MFU classes and experiences.]
Draves, Bill, The Free University: A Model for Lifelong Learning, Chicago: Association Press, Follet Publishing Company, 1980. [Probably the most balanced survey of Free University Movement, locates the MFU historically and politically in the overall scheme, see Chapter 5.]
Knight, Douglas M., Street of Dreams: The Nature and Legacy of the 1960’s. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1989. [President of Duke looks back, singling out the MFU Preamble as “a compelling and almost classical manifesto” of the best of those years, see page 127 ff.]
Lauter, Paul, and Howe, Florence, The Conspiracy of the Young, New York & Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1970. [Just OK overall view of the counterculture, Chapter 4 on free universities, focuses on the Experimental College at San Francisco State and the Free University of Pennsylvania.]
Lichtman, Jane, Bring Your Own Bag: A Report on Free Universities, Washington D.C.: American Association for Higher Education, 1973. [Glib but interesting examination of the free university movement. Good statistics. “Lessons” from MFU experience: “Coalition politics didn’t work” and “Participatory democracy doesn’t ensure involvement.”]
Markoff, John, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, New York: Viking, 2005 [Excellent description of role MFU members played in shaping the Silicon Valley computer culture. See especially, Chapter 4.]
Nelson, Fred, and McClanahan, Ed, eds., One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread, Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973. [“Best” Articles from the Free You—excellent Introduction, readable articles from the Newsletter, emphasis on good writing. All of the well-known contributors are represented. Little about the MFU’s actual workings or its defining events and controversies.]
Rossman, Michael, On Leaning and Social Change: Transcending the Totalitarian Classroom, New York: Random House, 1969. [Serious theoretical work on the issues; shoots for some overall synthesis; heavy sledding.]
Roszak, Theodore, The Making of the Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968 (1995: reprinted, with new Introduction by author). [Engaging work which raises most of the basic issues of the ‘60’s. Brief mention of the free university movement, incidental to a discussion of Paul Goodman’s ideas.]
DuBe’, Dennis R., “A History of the Community Free School and the Free University Movement”, Colorado Whole Community Free University: The Free School Catalog, Vol. 11, No. 9, November 1979. [Part I—The Natural State of Man is Ecstatic Wonder—is a nice, short piece about the MFU.]
Junker, Howard, “The Free University: Academy for Mavericks,” The Nation, August 16, 1965, 78-80. [About the Free University of New York]
Keyes, Ralph, “The Free Universities,” The Nation, October 2, 1967. [The Nation’s longest article on free universities focuses primarily on SF State’s Experimental College and the Free University of Pennsylvania.]
Power, Keith, “Midpeninsula: The Jivy League,” The Nation, April 14, 1967. [OK]
Tindall, Blair, “Psychedelic Palo Alto: Locals Recall Their Long, Strange Trip Through the ‘60’s,” Palo Alto Weekly, March 8, 2000. [A rapid tour through ‘60’s in Palo Alto.]
Additional Articles on Free Universities in general and, in some instances, the MFU, appeared in Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Palo Alto Times, eg. NYT, August 22, 1971, PA Times, August 31, 1968.
“The Weather Underground,” Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, released in 2002 and nominated for an Academy Award is a fine portrayal of the motives and moods of the revolutionary left at the end of MFU era. It’s available from Netflix.
Wikipedia, Midpeninsula Free University, where you'll find some additional links.
Should you have comments, corrections, etc., e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Warren, for providing a good portion of the Free U material and lots of help, information and suggestions; Lenny Siegel and Phil Trounstine, for additional material; Roy Kepler's biographer, Mike Doyle, for providing the FBI files; Ed McClanahan, for some Free You's and his help in locating copyright holders; Dorothy Bender and Florie Berger, for helping obtain rare early stuff from Stanford Special Collections; the people at Stanford Special Collections; Georgia Kelly, for the first catalog; Vic Lovell, for the final missing piece; Jessica Powers for help with the graphics; Caius van Nouhuys, Doug Hagan and Chris Middour, for help in penetrating the mysteries of HTML and ftp; and Dewayne Hendricks' Warp Speed Imagineering, for hosting the site.
Most of all, thanks to all of you who participated and who—each in your own way—created the Free U Experience, a semblance of which I've tried to capture here.
I’m the one responsible for the omissions, the errors, and the biases that may have crept in.